Monday, December 14, 2009

The Thirsty Traveler: article from Dec. issue of The Drive Magazine

There is a great Canadian ambassador who goes by the moniker "The Thirsty Traveler." Since 2002, when the show first aired on The Food Network, Thirsty Traveler, Kevin Brauch, has been a welcomed guest around the world on his adventurous and entertaining search for the finest spirits, wines, beers and food at every destination.

A Toronto native, Kevin Brauch is widely acknowledged as having "the best damn job in the world!" The "Thirsty Traveler" concept was born in a pitch Brauch made to Food Network producers at the Banff Mountain Film Festival back when the Food Network was celebrating its tenth anniversary. At that time, the network was looking at ways to diversify within its genre, and Brauch came forward with the perfect idea -- a man traveling the world, bringing the stories of famous and obscure libations, alike, to an audience that was doing more of its own traveling each year.

The show was originally called The Epicurean Traveler, with an emphasis on exotic food. But Brauch had a different vision, focusing on the nourishment that came in pint and wine glasses, whisky tumblers and snifters. The first episode had Brauch jump into the arena with both feet, going to Scotland in search of the Whisky Trail.

In a recent chat with The Drive Magazine, Brauch described the birth pangs of The Epicurean Traveler growing into The Thirsty Traveler. "After a long day of filming in Scotland, with tiredness, hunger and thirst setting in, there was some debate with producers about what I wanted to contribute to the show. It was getting near sundown and I was standing in a field of barley, anxious to wrap and get to the pub." The bone of contention revolved around Brauch and his crew believing the show should have a casual and humorous feel, while producers envisioned a more serious approach to the locales and drinks presented. Amid the fraying nerves, Brauch suddenly threw himself backward into the dense growth of barley, shouting, "It's the barley!" speaking about what makes scottish whisky so unique and revered. In that moment -- which his talented and dedicated cameraman, Brad, caught without flaw -- Brauch defined the tone and style of The Thirsty Traveler. "After that," he says, "the whole team seemed to 'get it.'"

The show took off from there. In the first season, alone, episodes were taped in Japan, Greece, Jamaica, Ireland and even Newfoundland, where the finer points of the province's famous drink, "Screech," were discussed. The show is now seen in more than 75 countries. It is also shown on Air Canada airlines, as well as the Food Network, Fine Living, Discovery Asia, BBC Food, CTV and E! Canada. The Thirsty Traveler recently reached its 60th-episode milestone.

In the Season 3, The Thirsty Traveler came to Windsor for an episode about Canadian whisky at Hiram Walker & Sons. Brauch was hosted by Canadian Club brand ambassadors, Dan Tullio and Tish Harcus. "I had a blast," Brauch says. "Being with Dan and Tish was like hanging out with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé," referring to the legendary entertainment couple known for their singing, but also for their comedic banter.

Hiram Walker distillery on Riverside Drive may be just another part of the landscape to most Windsor residents, but it's worth noting that Canadian Club is actually older than Canada. It's also had some very famous -- even infamous -- fans of its product. Not the least of which have been Queen Victoria, England's longest reigning monarch, Don Draper in the AMC TV show Madmen, James Bond, and, of course, Al Capone.

"The fact that Canadian Club is located in Windsor is what's made Canadian whisky," Brauch says. He's not only current on how drinks are brewed, blended or distilled, but he knows his history, too. "The proximity to the U.S. certainly didn't hurt, but even with its ready-made customers during Prohibition, C.C. was always about quality." Part of the region's colorful history is the fact that legendary mobster, Al Capone, smuggled thousands of cases of Canadian Club into Detroit.

As for Canadian Club's high status among whisky drinkers, Brauch says, "Canadian Club is a very easy and enjoyable way to get into Canadian whisky. It's so clean and smooth because it's distilled very well." He also spoke very highly of the distillery's tour.

So, how does a person get "the best damn job in the world"? Thomas Edison's equation of "one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration" seems to apply. Brauch entered the food and beverage industry as kitchen help, washing dishes, and basically doing every unpleasant behind-the-scenes chore that keeps all bars and restaurants going.

"I worked at the Old Spaghetti Factory," Brauch recalls, "and places like O'Toole's. One day, a bartender couldn't make it to work, so I was brought out to fill in for him. I immediately loved tending bar."

Harnessing his years of bartending and extensive mixological experiments, Brauch merged that experience with his love of writing and performing. After narrowly missing out on becoming an MTV VJ in the 1990s, Kevin became involved with no less than five award-winning children's television programs at TVOntario and CBC. His early on-air experience included a stint as "Revvin' Kevin" at Toronto's 102.1 FM and co-hosting Canadian Gardening Television on Life Network and HGTV Canada.

And so was the apprenticeship of this jet-setting Jedi knight of the pub, wine cellar and windowed cocktail lounge.

Aside from an undying thirst for adventure and fine food and drink, Brauch brings to the show a unique sense of humor and folksy interview style. He also brings a piece of his past: the silver tankard shown in the opening credits of The Thirsty Traveler. The tankard was a gift from a friend for standing up in a wedding. It is so identifiable that Brauch was once offered $7,000 for it -- an offer he did not accept.

When asked if he's approached by fans while filming on location, Brauch says that he is recognized by viewers. "But I'm not really asked for autographs," he says. "People just want to buy The Thirsty Traveler a drink and take pictures." And Kevin is cool with that.

But with a job that calls for imbibing copious amounts of alcohol, and rich or heavy food, how does Brauch remain fit and keep his wits about him while on location? "I try to run every morning, though it often turns out to be more of a walk," Brauch says. "Also, my standard M.O. is to drink 'one-for-one' -- one glass of water with lemon or lime in between each drink. That keeps me hydrated."

Beyond the picturesque locations, "the best damn job in the world" is not all that we see on TV. "I've traveled the world through terrorism, SARS, and avian flu, which can make for some stressful days," Brauch says.

When asked if he had ever worried about his safety in a particular part of the world, Brauch recalls filming in Northern Ireland. He's quick to say, "Belfast is beautiful, and the North of Ireland is much safer than what people in Canada usually think." But he describes retiring to a "local" in a small town outside of Port Rush, one evening, after filming at a famous nightclub called Kelly's. In the local, Brauch and his crew encountered the scourge of any drinking establishment: the drunken lout. "There was just this drunk guy who kept calling us Americans. When we said 'No, we're Canadian,' he said, 'Same thing.' When I jokingly suggested that he might be Scottish, things started to get dicey." Ultimately, there was no altercation, though diplomatic help from the barman was needed to see Brauch and his team to safety.

"For all of the flying I do," Brauch continued, "the worst turbulence I ever experienced was on a flight to Kelowna." He laughs. "You know, I've been to Asia and the middle east -- all over -- and I was thinking, 'Oh my God, I'm going down on my way to Kelowna?'" The plane landed safely, and The Thirsty Traveler lived to drink another day.

"There were some security concerns, too, when we were in Russia," Brauch explains. "None of us were personally in danger, but there was concern about our cameras and equipment being stolen. So, we traveled with this guy who I took to calling 'Barney Ruble.' He had a duffel bag with him at all times, and while in the bar car of a train, I asked him what he had in there. He didn't speak English, but he understood my hand gestures and unzipped the bag. Inside, there were about half a dozen handguns."

So, with 60 completed episodes under his belt, where would Kevin Brauch like to take the show that he hasn't seen yet? "India," he replies without hesitation. For all of the exotic drinks he's enjoyed during that time, what are some his favorites? "I'm primarily a beer guy, though, one of the real gifts the show has given me is a growing appreciation for wine. I also love tequila and Jägermeister."

At the moment, Brauch is on a break from the show. In his "spare time," he traveled to Victoria, British Columbia, to the four-day Art of the Cocktail -- an epicurean event connected to the Victoria Film Festival. He was invited to give a lecture on "Our Palettes." Given the success of The Thirsty Traveler, and Kevin Brauch's dedication to on-the-ground research, there is no question that he is an expert on the subject.

To read more about The Thirsty Traveler's adventures, check out


Hampers said...

Nice blog. Your story looks similar to mine. I love alcoholic beverages and travelling. Enjoyed your blog very much.

Whetam Gnauckweirst said...

Many thanks!